Tango is to salsa what waltz is to boogaloo.
As champagne is to tequila.
As matron is to virgin; concierge to delivery boy.
Let's be clear: We're talking here about classic Argentine tango, not its flashier American cousin -- you know, the Bugs Bunny, whiplash variety.
In Argentine tango, subtlety is a hallmark; physical discipline a necessity.
On a Sunday evening, a demonstration of perfect form ensues at Manitou Springs' Encore! Dinner Theatre, where a weekly milonga or social dance is held. The ballroom is dusty and faded, but a fine parquet floor accommodates the dancers' long, slow moves.
A woman in tight, brocade leggings and a matching fitted top leans her straight torso into her partner, instructor Scott McLane. He leans forward too, a strong hand across her shoulder blades. She's a board; he's a board. They begin to move in a linear sweep. As their legs propel them, there is no movement in their quiet hips. They are all concentration, all precision.
Slowly, she begins to turn into and away from him on each pronounced musical beat. When they pause, her pointed toe hovers above the floor like a hummingbird about to take flight.
It's a beautiful sight. Precision turns to art with the lift of a neck, a sweep of motion, an expert dip as controlled as the closing of a curtain.
"It takes an avid follower about four months to get it," says McLane, a Denver resident who teaches Argentine tango in the Springs every week. "It takes a leader about a year."
He is referring, of course, to the dancer who leads and the dancer who follows. In Argentine tango, he points out, you don't really see the man, the leader, dance. To a certain degree, he accommodates the follower's footsteps.
A student and performer of classical dance for many years, McLane turned his attention to tango in the 1980s. And like many aficionados, his interest borders on obsession. Tango is an art, a physical discipline, a philosophy to those who get caught in its elegant web.
One dancer, a California woman named Johanna Siegmann, has gone so far as to write a book and create a system of spiritual training she calls The Tao of Tango. "Tango," she writes, "represents the very essence of the male and female energies; the dancers are the physical representation of these energies in each of us.
"Life, after all, is a tango -- the male and female energy in each of us engaged in a dance to strike the right balance."
McLane compares it to a martial art where the practitioner must always know where his weight is, where his balance resides.
Tango's peasant beginnings belie the formal elegance that has come to characterize the form.
"Just before 1900, Buenos Aires was booming," says McLane. "Boys flooded the town, sailors looking for jobs. The girls were Catholic, so the boys had to go to social dances to demonstrate their manners. These are guys who work by day in tanning factories, meat-packing plants, who teach each other dance moves. They practice testosterone-packed, masculine horseplay, aggressive, fiery foot play that eventually becomes a ballroom dance."
McLane demonstrates moves from the center of the room. He pivots and slides on pointy-toed black leather shoes with two-inch heels. "It's a simple dance," he encourages his trainees, "made up by boys."
It's not unusual for singles to show up at the milango and at Monday night classes without a partner. On this night, two guys dance together. The next night, Monday, two women break away from their partners to take a turn around the floor together. It's the balance that can be found, the leading and following that matter.
McLane emphasizes the discipline involved in the dance, pointing out that while the type of tango seen in ballroom dance competitions on PBS is a worthy form unto itself, it should not be confused with Argentine tango.
"The romance implied in that popular notion of tango is a bugaboo for teachers," he says.
Three essential things to remember, he says: 1) Lean forward. 2) Wear black. 3) Put on your tango face.
But a moment later, his partner from earlier in the evening weighs in a little more dreamily on her love for the form.
"First," she says, "it's wonderfully social. Second, it's great for balance."
Then she leans forward, urging me to take the floor. You must feel it to understand it, she says.
"It's drama," she says, a smile spreading across her face. "You get a chance to fall in love, then walk away, then fall in love again."
Sundays at 5:30 p.m., free mini-lesson followed by milonga (social dance), 6-9 p.m. Open bar, recorded tango music. Encore! Dinner Theatre, 10 Old Man's Trail, Manitou Springs. Call Rod Derby at 475-0625 for more information. No partner or experience needed. See www.tangosprings.com.
Argentine tango classes for beginners, intermediate dancers and advanced dancers on Mondays at the I.O.O.F. Hall, 2228 W. Pikes Peak Ave., Old Colorado City. Six-class session costs $54 for singles, $96 for couples. Open dance floor from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. is free of charge. Observers welcome. For information on private lessons and upcoming Monday sessions, call Scott McLane at 303/595-0706.
Practice sessions for Argentine tango are held the first and third Saturdays of each month at Counterpoint Studios, 611 N. Royer St., for $5. For information, call Rod Derby at 475-0625 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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